I imagine eldest children are often shafted with the role of caregiver, but the bigger the family, the larger the role.
A tornado warning had been issued near our house in Peyton. Was it a warning or a watch? I can never remember which is which. At any rate, a tornado had been spotted. My mom had driven to “town”- which is Hicksville-speak for travelling twenty miles so she could get to a grocery store comprised of more than three isles. My sister, Lisa, had been left in charge.
I was especially terrified of tornadoes thanks to The Wizard of Oz and an incomplete set of ancient encyclopedias. The movie is self explanatory, but my real fear was garnered from the facts listed in the section titled “tornadoes.” I learned that tornadoes could lift cows into the air, and cause a piece of straw to embed in a tree trunk. I kept looking out the window expecting cattle and deadly grasses to whiz by my head.
Lisa gathered us all into a bedroom. I can’t remember if it was her room or my parents. I remember it had a queen sized bed. She handed a soup spoon to each of my brothers and me. My face must have displayed my puzzlement because she said ”It’s in case we need to dig ourselves out.”
Now I was getting really anxious. Dig ourselves out? Again she must have read my face.
“Let’s watch TV,” she said in an attempt to take my mind elsewhere.
My five siblings and I climbed onto the bed and under the yellow flowered comforter. My sister turned on the television. The only show we could get to come in on our high tech rabbit ear system was Leave It To Beaver. When I think of my family, that’s how I imagine us. Taking care of each other, in it together, digging ourselves out with soup spoons if we have to.
I wrote a piece for Jeff last week, and he remarked that he always saw me as the cool older sister from Dazed and Confused. This is how I see Lisa.
Lisa used to hide her records in the closet. This was the mid-eighties and we lived in the heart of conservative Colorado. Burning records was not an unheard of practice. Perhaps she was guarding against religious zealots, or maybe she just didn’t want her brothers and sister to get their dirt and sugar covered fingers on them.
Chris and I were good at snooping. Lisa probably taught us. We found those records and of course were intrigued. I would not touch the albums. I had watched a 20/20 episode about Satanism, and rock and roll music had been prominently featured. I was taking no chances.
Chris ran his hands over the KISS album, remarking how their name stood for Kings In Satan’s Sin. I countered that it was really Knights in Satan’s Service.
We moved on to the next album, April Wine. We put in on the record player. I listening to the singer crooning:
“If you see Kay, tell her I want her….”
Chris’s eyes were wide with expectation. He looked at me in amazement, waiting for a reaction.
I stared back, my face blank with innocence.
“If you see Kay…,” he prodded, coaxing me along. Nothing was registering. MY face was like a undisturbed skin on top of a bowl of vanilla pudding.
“It sounds like F-U-C-K! It spells fuck!”
OH….MY….GOD!!! My jaw dropped to my knees. My eyes bugged out as if the very word FUCK was squeezing the sides of my head and forcing them from their sockets. Whoa. I kind of wanted to tell my mom, but then I would be out of this super secret club. I kept my mouth shut and kept listening.
It would not be the only time Lisa led me down the road of blasphemy. My first taste of alcohol was a sip off of her strawberry wine cooler. The first time horror movie I watched all the way through was A Nightmare on Elm Street, viewed midday during another one of my mom’s trips to town. This might make her sound like the world’s worst babysitter, but she wasn’t. She was simply young enough to understand our curiosity, and smart enough to let us feel like we were getting away with something bad while being under her careful watch.
In a house of six kids, it can sometimes feel as if you are battling for attention. I had two strikes against me. I was a middle child, and I was in a family of mostly boys. Lisa understood I needed to feel special and like a girl. She always took me places with her, never annoyed to have a little sister tagging along For my twelfth birthday, she let me stay at the apartment she shared with a classmate from her cosmetology school. She cut my hair to look like Debbie Gibson and took me shopping for mini skirts. I still remember the look on my friends faces when I showed up for school looking like a hip teenager and not a little girl. Soon, they were sporting very similar looks.
I knew Lisa was cool, but I didn’t know she was strong until the birth of her son. I was so excited when she got pregnant. I loved babies and couldn’t wait to get my hands on one on a regular basis.
Lisa gave birth to a beautiful blonde haired blue eyed boy and made me an aunt. She and her husband named him Seth, and our family was smitten on sight.
Lisa took Seth in for a routine checkup when he was a few days old. I don’t know all of the exact details, but I know this visit ended with a doctor telling her “your son is dying.”
As a mother myself now, I can’t even imagine what she felt in that moment. I keep trying to think of a way to put it into words, but it’s beyond description. It has to be the worst moment a parent can imagine.
I am thankful to say, Seth made it, but not without struggle. He had open heart surgery at a week old. He remained in the hospital for months after.
At first, we were not allowed to see him. His condition was too fragile. He needed to gain weight and get stronger before he was allowed visitors.
The day came when we could go see him. The trip to the hospital was over an hour from our home. As we drove, my mother prepared me for the visit, warning me that he was in a room with a lot of sick babies.
I was terrified when I entered the doors to the NICU. I breathed in slowly as I scrubbed my hands trying to rid myself of any contagious germs. Lisa came through the doors with a smile on her face. She couldn’t wait to show me how big Seth had gotten.
She led us back to his crib. I don’t know what I was expecting- some horrible, sick, scary looking child. But he was a baby. An adorable, chubby cheeked, normal looking baby.
She asked me if I wanted to hold him, and I said yes. She carefully moved his feeding tube and monitoring cables, and placed him in my arms. Years later, I would visit my own son in the NICU and think of this moment, and how much strength she must have had to make it through that time.
I could write volumes about everything this girl has survived, but when I think of her, the thing I most associate with her is laughter. Lisa has the biggest, most boisterous laugh you have ever heard. I swear, you can hear it from a block away.
Lisa, I love you. You are still the coolest chick I know. I love your big hair, your big attitude and everything about you. Next time I come to your house, I’m checking the closet for records.